Jack stood up and looked. Carved into the stone in a bas-relief was a representation of a large tree. The angled-pole that Nate was wrapped around was coming out of the trunk of the tree, right below where the main branches left the truck to reach out across the stone. It was very well done – it looked more like a tree had been reduced to almost two dimensions and embedded in the stone than it did like a carving.
Jack walked around and looked at the details in the fading light of the setting sun. He wished he’d looked at it while the sun was higher in the sky.
Wait! The sun was setting! That meant he was going to have to spend another night out here! Arrrgh!
Jack looked out across the desert for a little bit, and then came back and stood next to Nate. “In all the excitement, I almost forgot, Nate,” said Jack. “Which way is it back to town? And how far? I’m eventually going to have to head back – I’m not sure I’ll be able to survive by eating raw desert critters for long. And even if I can, I’m not sure I’ll want to.”
“It’s about 30 miles that way.” Nate pointed, with the rattle on his tail this time. As far as Jack could tell, it was a direction at right angles to the way he’d been going when he was crawling here. “But that’s 30 miles by the way the crow flies. It’s about 40 by the way a man walks. You should be able to do it in about half a day with your improved endurance, if you head out early tomorrow, Jack.”
Jack looked out the way the snake had pointed for a few seconds more, and then sat back down. It was getting dark. Not much he could do about heading out right now. And besides, Nate was just about to get to the interesting stuff. “Garden of Eden? As best as you can figure it?”
“Well, yeah, as best as I and Samuel could figure it anyway,” said Nate. “He figured that the story just got a little mixed up. You know, snake, in a ‘tree’, offering ‘temptations’, making bargains. That kind stuff. But he could never quite figure out how the Hebrews found out about this spot from across the ocean. He worried about that for a while.”
“Garden of Eden, hunh?” said Jack. “How long have you been here, Nate?”
“No idea, really,” replied Nate. “A long time. It never occurred to me to count years, until recently, and by then, of course, it was too late. But I do remember when this whole place was green, so I figure it’s been thousands of years, at least.”
“So, are you the snake that tempted Eve?” said Jack.
“Beats me,” said Nate. “Maybe. I can’t remember if the first one of your kind that I talked to was female or not, and I never got a name, but it could have been. And I suppose she could have considered my offer to grant requests a ‘temptation’, though I’ve rarely had refusals.”
“Well, umm, how did you get here then? And why is that white pole stuck out of the stone there?” asked Jack.
“Dad left me here. Or, I assume it was my dad. It was another snake – much bigger than I was back then. I remember talking to him, but I don’t remember if it was in a language, or just kind of understanding what he wanted. But one day, he brought me to this stone, told me about it, and asked me to do something for him. I talked it over with him for a while, then agreed. I’ve been here ever since.
“What is this place?” said Jack. “And what did he ask you to do?”
“Well, you see this pole here, sticking out of the stone?” Nate loosened his coils around the tilted white pole and showed Jack where it descended into the stone. The pole was tilted at about a 45 degree angle and seemed to enter the stone in an eighteen inch slot cut into the stone. Jack leaned over and looked. The slot was dark and the pole went down into it as far as Jack could see in the dim light. Jack reached out to touch the pole, but Nate was suddenly there in the way.
“You can’t touch that yet, Jack,” said Nate.
“Why not?” asked Jack.
“I haven’t explained it to you yet,” replied Nate.
“Well, it kinda looks like a lever or something,” said Jack. “You’d push it that way, and it would move in the slot.”
“Yep, that’s what it is,” replied Nate.
“What does it do?” asked Jack. “End the world.”
“Oh, no,” said Nate. “Nothing that drastic. It just ends humanity. I call it ‘The Lever of Doom’.” For the last few words Nate had used a deeper, ringing voice. He tried to look serious for a few seconds, and then gave up and grinned.
Jack was initially startled by Nate’s pronouncement, but when Nate grinned Jack laughed. “Ha! You almost had me fooled for a second there. What does it really do?”
“Oh, it really ends humanity, like I said,” smirked Nate. “I just thought the voice I used was funny, didn’t you?”
Nate continued to grin.
“A lever to end humanity?” asked Jack. “What in the world is that for? Why would anyone need to end humanity?”
“Well,” replied Nate, “I get the idea that maybe humanity was an experiment. Or maybe the Big Guy just thought, that if humanity started going really bad, there should be a way to end it. I’m not really sure. All I know are the rules, and the guesses that Samuel and I had about why it’s here. I didn’t think to ask back when I started here.”
“Rules? What rules?” asked Jack.
“The rules are that I can’t tell anybody about it or let them touch it unless they agree to be bound to secrecy by a bite. And that only one human can be bound in that way at a time. That’s it.” explained Nate.
Jack looked somewhat shocked. “You mean that I could pull the lever now? You’d let me end humanity?”
“Yep,” replied Nate, “if you want to.” Nate looked at Jack carefully. “Do you want to, Jack?”
“Umm, no.” said Jack, stepping a little further back from the lever. “Why in the world would anyone want to end humanity? It’d take a psychotic to want that! Or worse, a suicidal psychotic, because it would kill him too, wouldn’t it?”
“Yep,” replied Nate, “being as he’d be human too.”
“Has anyone ever seriously considered it?” asked Nate. “Any of those bound to secrecy, that is?”
“Well, of course, I think they’ve all seriously considered it at one time or another. Being given that kind of responsibility makes you sit down and think, or so I’m told. Samuel considered it several times. He’d often get disgusted with humanity, come out here, and just hold the lever for a while. But he never pulled it. Or you wouldn’t be here.” Nate grinned some more.
Jack sat down, well back from the lever. He looked thoughtful and puzzled at the same time. After a bit, he said, “So this makes me the Judge of humanity? I get to decide whether they keep going or just end? Me?”
“That seems to be it,” agreed Nate.
“What kind of criteria do I use to decide?” said Jack. “How do I make this decision? Am I supposed to decide if they’re good? Or too many of them are bad? Or that they’re going the wrong way? Is there a set of rules for that?”
“Nope,” replied Nate. “You pretty much just have to decide on your own. It’s up to you, however you want to decide it. I guess that you’re just supposed to know.”
“But what if I get mad at someone? Or some girl dumps me and I feel horrible? Couldn’t I make a mistake? How do I know that I won’t screw up?” protested Jack.
Nate gave his kind of snake-like shrug again. “You don’t. You just have to try your best, Jack.”
Jack sat there for a while, staring off into the desert that was rapidly getting dark, chewing on a fingernail.
Suddenly, Jack turned around and looked at the snake. “Nate, was Samuel the one bound to this before me?”
“Yep,” replied Nate. “He was a good guy. Talked to me a lot. Taught me to read and brought me books. I think I still have a good pile of them buried in the sand around here somewhere. I still miss him. He died a few months ago.”
“Sounds like a good guy,” agreed Jack. “How did he handle this, when you first told him. What did he do?”
“Well,” said Nate, “he sat down for a while, thought about it for a bit, and then asked me some questions, much like you’re doing.”
“What did he ask you, if you’re allowed to tell me?” asked Jack.
“He asked me about the third request,” replied Nate.